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Oliver Burkeman. (Michael Falco, for The Globe and Mail)
Oliver Burkeman. (Michael Falco, for The Globe and Mail)

Oliver Burkeman: a skeptical happiness expert Add to ...

Have you used the technique often?

I use it on a daily basis in small ways. If you’re running late for some appointment or you’re going to give some talk that you’re sort of nervous about, it’s always really useful to stop and realize that a certain amount of public embarrassment is the worst that could happen. And yet the thoughts that you’ve been having on a semi-conscious level are a bit more equivalent to the world exploding.

I loved the discussion of how our beliefs or judgments about certain things cause unhappiness, not the things themselves. You give the example of how we might become irritated by a colleague in the next cubicle who won’t stop talking. We think it’s the colleague who’s irritating. But the stoics would say that what is actually causing distress is our own belief that getting work done without interruption is an important goal.

It’s interesting because the cult of optimism would say: Try and force your belief about everything being as upbeat and cheery as possible. But the stoics will say to just remember that it’s your beliefs that are mediating between events and your emotions. You don’t need to, and it’s probably not a good idea, to struggle to make those beliefs totally upbeat.

True. But you even suggest the same holds true when someone we love falls ill. What causes our suffering is the belief that it’s not a good thing for our loved ones to fall ill. That’s interesting from a philosophical point of view, but not very comforting.

You don’t need to let go of the belief. You just need to recognize that it is a belief that is causing what’s happening, and that can trigger a certain amount of calm into the situation that remains a very sad one. I suspect that this mythic stoic sage would remain untouched by emotions, but I’m not sure I would endorse that stance. I want to retain the ability to feel very sad when sad things happen, but it’s just a slightly more calm way to go about it.

But you also discuss uncertainty, a fundamental human discomfort, in a way that’s very poetic, but again, not necessarily helpful. You quote American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who writes that “the ethical life … is based on a trust in uncertainty … on being more like a plant than a jewel: something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility.” That’s lovely, Oliver, but very hard to do.

I know. But how we think about something often exacerbates the problem we’re trying to solve. So by constantly chasing after feelings of security and certainty is to somehow deny the fundamental reality of loss, which is that everything changes all the time. The ultimate target, if you can consider it, is to just plug completely into that uncertainty and to recognize it. But don’t get me wrong: The idea of embracing groundlessness is a hard thing, and I have not got it licked.

You got to meet Eckhart Tolle. As a skeptical journalist, were you won over?

I concluded from meeting him and reading his books that he’s the real deal. People assume that a lot of books with weird New Age titles are going to be suggesting that you swing crystals over your liver. But actually if you read someone like Tolle, it’s an exercise in introspection. It’s not some dodgy scientific claim about how the world works. It’s saying, ‘Look inside yourself. Are we not accompanied by this chattering inner voice all the time? What might it mean to consider that you are not your mind.’ That’s really an incredibly profound idea: you can start to watch and observe your thoughts instead of being completely identified with them.

Basically. your book is trying to encourage a self-awareness about the way we think.

Yes, absolutely. It’s about saying that positive thinking says to just change your thoughts. Whereas these approaches say change your relationship to your thoughts and emotions. Don’t struggle to change the thoughts and emotions themselves.

Some people have called your approach to happiness Grinch-like. Does that bother you?

It doesn’t affect me, really. The thing I try to be clear about is that this is a question of balancing imbalance. If I were saying that all positivity should be shunned and avoided, just as positive thinkers say all negative thinking should be shunned, that would be futile and irritating.

Do you get push back from the positive folk?

A little. But I think that I don’t hear as much from positive people who object because it would require them to be negative.

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